Tariq Aziz was just sixteen years of age when we met at a jirga on October 27th, 2011, in Islamabad, Pakistan. The jirga had brought tribal elders together along with human rights lawyers, international journalists and politicians to discuss the ongoing drone strikes and rising civilian deaths as a result of poor CIA “intelligence”. Tariq was one of a small group of boys that had endured a perilous journey from their home village in Mir Ali, North Western Waziristan, a village that forms part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The journey took around eight hours and would have meant passing through potential Taliban hotspots, army checkpoints and at stages being under the direct tracking of US remotely operated drones.
At that moment in time, Tariq Aziz sat with his friends hoping that he might just get a chance to talk to somebody about his own personal loss, try and get some clarity about it. He was not under surveillance; he was not on the CIA’s “kill list” and he was not considered a security threat to the westerners he was about to meet. Had he of been a suspect, then surely there would have been no better place to pick him up than in Islamabad and take things from there. Furthermore, the tribal elders knew every individual on the trip and they took full responsibility for them. The visit for Tariq was entirely in peace and with the respect of the elders from his local village. He was, after all, just a boy, the youngest brother of seven children in his family.
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It took me a while to talk to Tariq when I saw him at the jirga. He sat with some of his friends and listened quietly to everything that was being discussed. Initially I had been asked to join Reprieve on the trip as I had been working on a “transparency” project that was designed to allow people from drone struck areas to document the constant terror they lived under. It was also a way of photographically capturing the carnage and civilian deaths that inevitably occurred so that this information could be recorded and used as evidence. But before I even embarked on this project, I found myself documenting people’s experiences – the sheer horror of what they were living through on a daily basis.
As I sat with my Pashto interpreter, a queue formed of boys (and men) standing patiently. Each person held either a photograph of a loved family member or an ID card of someone they knew that had been killed by a direct drone strike. Each boy who sat in front of me looked shy and apprehensive, not sure whether they could trust a westerner. Slowly, information was documented and the group began to look more at ease, more confident in what we were doing. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Tariq sitting with a friend.
When the queue had finished (I spoke with 6 boys all of whom had lost family members in drone strikes), Tariq’s friend gave him a gentle nudge and pointed over to me. Tariq stood hesitantly and walked over with his friend. If I had to guess Tariq’s age at that moment, I would have said mid to late twenties easily. His face was drawn, his eyes bloodshot and he looked completely shattered. It was hard to believe that this was just a boy. He handed me an ID card. The name read “Asmar Ullah, Class: 9 TH, Government High School Hassukhel, Mir Ali, NWA.” Such was his grief that he was unable to tell his story and his friend began to gesture to me. He pointed to the I.D card and somewhere in between his native Pashto language and my English we met in familiarity as he pointed to the sky, made a hand gesture like that of an object hovering from above and then pointed back to the ID card and made the sound of an explosion. Tariq looked away in grief.
Asmar Ullah was also sixteen years old when he was killed and was Tariq’s cousin. He had been killed by a drone strike eighteen months earlier while riding on his motorbike near to his village Norak. On hearing about the jirga, Tariq had decided that he wanted to learn why his cousin had been so wrongly targeted and assist his local community by documenting drones through photography. When I asked Tariq through my interpreter how many drones he had seen – expecting him to say one or two a week – he replied, “ten or more every day, for months now, day and night.” As a result, he lived in constant fear; he could not sleep properly at night and during the day he was hesitant to even leave his home. He was petrified, and – along with all the other boys I met – they all said they didn’t want to go home. When his cousin was killed, Tariq fell into a deep sadness. He could not understand why such a nice boy had been killed in such a brutal and emotionless way. He questioned repeatedly why he had been targeted and what this meant for other members of his family.
We discussed several issues about drones, most notable was Tariq’s belief that using a mobile phone would place a person in direct danger as third parties could be heard on the line at the same time. As a result, many people had stopped using their phones and felt even more cut off from the community.
After we talked, Tariq invited me to eat with him. We sat together in silence and ate lunch. I felt like I had been accepted into someone’s life who had severe doubts about my initial integrity and this was a great feeling for me. Tariq had sought salvation and reassurance and hopefully we gave him some confidence. I believe he may have had the best night’s sleep he had had in years that night.
After the jirga, Tariq invited me to join the convoy of small mini buses that the tribal elders had hired for the trip. We drove in convoy into central Islamabad where Imran Khan held a peaceful drone rally. I took this as an honor, the only westerner asked and I sat with the boys I had met in quiet joy. The mood was upbeat and optimistic. The mini bus pulled over en route and everyone got out to make their prayers. I said my farewells and drifted off into the gathering crowds.
The news of Tariq’s death
On Friday, 31st October 2011, just three days later, I was in Faisalabad when I learnt of Tariq’s death. A reaper drone fired two missiles and Tariq was decapitated. His twelve-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan, and a close friend (who played in the same football team) were also killed while traveling by car to pick up his aunt after her wedding in their home village. Tariq was driving the car towards Mir Ali. He hadn’t yet got a license, but this was not uncommon in such areas. Police presence was so low and boys would learn to drive a little earlier so they could help run errands for their family.
Were it not for the fact that the car was less than two hundred meters from its destination, it would have been impossible to identify either body. I know this as a matter of fact. One month after the murders, I received a video of the two boys’ funerals, held together the day after. One of the local villagers shot the footage on a handheld camera. Over fifty men gathered as two coffins were carried towards a resting place. Men wept as the ground was dug up and the coffins placed ready for burial. The camera moved towards each coffin, all that was inside were severed body parts covered by a sheet. It was impossible to ascertain who was who, or which end was the head or the foot of either child. Small children gathered in the background crying as Tariq’s uncle also stood weeping uncontrollably and gesturing to the sky.
Sadly the person sitting and controlling the drone made the wrong judgment. James Jeffrey openly admits that he personally almost mistook a girl playing in the street for a Taliban member, only to retract his joystick at the last moment, saving the girls life. If only the person responsible for Tariq’s death had waited a while longer, maybe, just maybe he would have realized the judgment call was completely wrong.
The statement released later in the day said that “four militants” had been killed according to “unnamed Pakistani security officials.” There was and has never been, any recognition by the U.S government that two children were killed by the strikes and that four “militants” were not killed as reported earlier.
The US remains silent
Even now, the US Government has made no comment about this murder. This seems to be their policy and from this it is impossible to ascertain what “classified” information they can have about any of the 176 children so far murdered. I say “murdered” because at present nobody has come forward with any evidence that could contradict the call. The children must be considered innocent until proven guilty.
Since Obama has taken office, drone strikes have almost quadrupled and in consequence, hatred towards the US must surely put that country in greater danger too. The silence from the White House on this policy is deafening, and so damning is the situation now that the United Nations is setting up its own investigations into what should be considered war crimes.
Last month, I applied for a visa to return back to Pakistan. It was immediately rejected without any justification offered. I had intended to join Imran Khan, Reprieve and Codepink (a US consortium of 20 or more anti-war members) on a peaceful rally towards the south of Waziristan. Along the journey, I had hoped to met with Tariq’s mother and tell her what an honor it was to have met her son. I had planned to give her the last image of her son that I took with my camera before his tragic death. This can wait for another time.